Tag Archives: Freethought

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?



Christianity’s Gift to Western Civilization

This just in from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing in support of the death penalty:

In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.

Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.

American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. [emphasis mine]

If I still believed in God, I would thank him that “the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization” — a moral clarity that brought us

– I would thank him that all this had been replaced with almost anything else.

And how ironic is it that Albert Mohler’s own denomination was founded to support the right to own slaves? And he’s scolding us secularists because we don’t have “a clear sense of right and wrong”!?

I was once a Southern Baptist myself, so I know where Mohler is coming from, but from my current perch it’s pretty hard to take. If I were to give full vent to my feelings on this subject, I would say something I’d regret. Therefore, I’ll give the floor to the endlessly forbearing Richard Dawkins. A transcript follows the video in case you’re in a hurry.

QUESTIONER: Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?

DAWKINS: Absolute morality — the absolute morality that a religious person might profess — would include what? Stoning people for adultery? Death for apostasy? Punishment for breaking the sabbath? These are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities.

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon — you could almost say — intelligent design.

Can we not design our society which has the sort of morality — the sort of society that we want to live in? If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st-century people, we don’t believe in slavery anymore; we believe in equality of women; we believe in being gentle; we believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in biblical or quranic scripture. They are things which have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion.

To the extent that you can find the good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry-pick. You search your way through the Bible or the Quran and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality and you say, “Look at that! That’s religion!” And you leave out all the horrible bits. And you say, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve grown out of that.” Well of course we’ve grown out of it. We’ve grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Moral Health and Physical Health

If you’ve been with me through the last few posts, you know that Sam Harris argues in his book, The Moral Landscape, that questions of right and wrong really come down to questions about the well-being of conscious creatures *. Any other consideration is, by definition, of literally no interest.

This time, I’d like to share an analogy that Dr. Harris uses in support of his view. Here are two quotations from the introduction to his book:

Many readers might wonder how we can base our values on something as difficult to define as “well-being”? It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.

…consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.

Many of us have a strong sense of right and wrong, even absent religious traditions or holy books that supposedly spell it all out. Statements like, “It’s all relative” or, “Anything goes” make us very uncomfortable. The analogy between moral and physical health is a welcome way to ground what we know intuitively. If valid, it neatly questions like these:

  • If we don’t believe in one, God-given moral system, what right do we have to say anything compelling about right and wrong — even to ourselves?
  • How can we be generally tolerant of other people’s moral views, yet take a strong stand against (to take the case that is always trotted out) the views of Hitler?

Analogies usually break down the more you push them, but I think this one is quite strong. What do you think?

* – To belabor a point: “conscious creatures” may include god(s) and “well-being” may incorporate an afterlife. Of course, Harris, an atheist, does not expand the terms in these ways for himself.

The Moral Landscape

The Moral LandscapeI almost didn’t read Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, because I could not imagine it had anything worthwhile to say.

The book gets its title from the idea that various moral viewpoints are like different locations on a landscape. Moral systems that are associated with greater well-being are the higher elevations; those that bring misery are the valleys. For example, the moral system that characterizes a typical, first-world democracy, while not perfect, is certainly at a higher elevation than the brand of morality to which the Taliban would subjugate us all. Our job, says Harris, is to get to the highest ground possible.

I’ve always been skeptical of utilitarianism — the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” First of all, how do you establish what is “good”? And even if you can measure the good that someone experiences, how do you combine those measurements across several billion people to produce a meaningful statistic that lets you make a moral decision? And let’s not even talk about the conundrums exposed by trolley problems! Before reading his book, I thought Dr. Harris’s idea had to be just another cul-de-sac in the utilitarian suburb.

My own view, which I outlined last fall, is that humanity’s competing moral systems are nothing more than memes, but, happily, the memes that cause their adherents to flourish will eventually dominate.

It turns out that Dr. Harris’s ideas are compatible with that view, but he strengthens it with a dose of moral realism. I would summarize his argument thus:

  1. Moral values must ultimately be about the well-being of conscious organisms (including God, if you will). If there were a value that had absolutely no impact on anyone’s consciousness, we would by definition have no reason to value it.
  2. One’s well-being is embodied in one’s brain state.
  3. We have thus made a link between morality and physical fact.
  4. Physical facts are the domain of science.
  5. Science can therefore help us find moral truths.

As Dr. Harris puts it, “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (Just to be clear, Dr. Harris, a neuroscientist, is not saying that we should seek answers to all moral questions by attaching electrodes to people’s scalps.)

In the next several posts, I’ll relate some points that were most thought-provoking for me such as…

  • The Bad Life versus the Good Life.
  • The disastrous consequences of separating facts and values, as practiced by the Left.
  • Ditto, when done by the Right.
  • An analogy between moral health and physical health.
  • How much respect should we give other views?
  • Have we flown the perch built by evolution?
  • How does an afterlife figure in all this?
  • Can suffering be good?
  • What about religion?
  • Hume’s is/ought distinction.
  • How a barbarous act by one person  becomes respected if it is a cultural practice.
  • Might there be more than one answer?
  • The strange case of the Dobu Islanders.
  • If we were to concern ourselves with maximizing well-being rather than with right and wrong, what would we lose?
  • The most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

There’s actually a lot more, but that’s all I’ll promise for now. Stay tuned!

McDonald’s and the Act of Uniformity

Have you ever heard laments like these?

With Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pops out of business, the whole country is becoming the same. Soon there will be no such thing as regional character.

Exports from the American entertainment industry are slowly making the rest of the world just like us.

There are 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing! American culture is polluting the world.

(There’s even a word for that last one: McDonaldization!)

As communication and trade increase, it is inevitable that ideas and culture will diffuse like dye through water. It can seem that where we used to have enchanting red liquid over here and emerald green liquid over there, now we just have a brown puddle.

Not so fast. I suggest that this so-called homogenization is actually bringing us diversity, not uniformity.

The subject came to mind when a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices happened to catch my eye this morning. I Googled around about its author, Thomas Brooks, and discovered that he was a “non-conformist” Puritan minister. What that means, among other things, was that he ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity passed by the English Parliament in 1662. Although he was a devout Christian, he apparently didn’t pray in the right way, or believe the right things, and he lost his job — he and about 2,000 others.

Combined with other Acts passed at about the same time, the Act of Uniformity not only  restricted church offices to conforming Anglicans, but likewise limited opportunities in the military and government.

I suppose that was better than a few years earlier, when people of the wrong Christian faith could be executed, but still…

Obviously the England of 1662 was still rife with in-tribe / out-tribe psychology. That’s hardly surprising: most people’s knowledge of Catholics, the French, and other out-tribers was limited to ugly rumor.

Today, thanks to the internet and the dreaded globalization, we are no longer as xenophobic. To be sure, we still trust our own kind more than outsiders, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Dealing with people around the globe has taught many of us that people on the other side of the Earth can be good people, too. Beyond that, we are coming to appreciate and welcome each others’ cultures.

Last November, my software team in Massachusetts celebrated a small Thanksgiving feast over video-conference with the other half of our team, located in India. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts.

As people are being mixed together more, we’re also discovering that our old prejudices against foreigners, people of lower classes, people of higher classes, homosexuals, people with disabilities — really prejudices against anyone — just don’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine, but just 100 years ago we had a president (Woodrow Wilson) who said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country.” And that was from a Northern progressive! He was one of the liberal ones!

How have we freed ourselves from such insanity? Only as commerce and the internet have thrown us together.

Perhaps the world is becoming more homogenized, but only in a coarse-grained way. At the fine-grained level where people live, we are more diverse than ever.

Due Process and Freedom of Thought

Here is a paradox that went undiscovered for all but the last hair’s breadth of human history: the innocent will never be safe unless the guilty are protected.

That’s due process of law. To ensure that as few people as possible are wrongly convicted, we trust a process that occasionally lets the guilty go free — sometimes people we know are guilty. Maybe all the evidence was there, but it was illegally obtained. Maybe the suspect was caught in the act, but was not read his Miranda rights. Maybe we know the suspect would collapse under questioning, but our constitution gives him the right to decline to testify.

It can be maddening to watch a trial play out this way, but those of us who are privileged to live in enlightened societies would not have it any other way.

We have learned that the process itself is far more important than any individual outcome. As much as we might long for an enlightened despot who could set injustice right with a wave of his scepter, we have learned at least one lesson of history: We would sooner trust our fate to millions of ignoramuses than to any one person. Even ourselves.

Freedom of thought goes hand-in-hand with due process. We have come a long way from the time when Jesus’s prosecutor shouted, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” We recognize that people have a right to their opinions.

What does that mean? Does it only mean, “I disagree with you but uphold your right to think as you please?”

We do well if it means much more than that.

To grant someone the right to his opinion entails that we still regard him as a fellow human, fully worthy of compassion and respect, even if we think his opinion is wrong or immoral. The alternative — to regard him as less worthy than ourselves — is to annihilate his humanity. If we mentally grant someone a right to an opinion, but then mentally destroy his humanity, what progress have we made?

To properly value freedom of thought also means that we do not harbor any wish for scepter-waving. If you were sovereign over the world and could wave a magic scepter to make everyone agree with you, would you do it? I hope not. I hope you would use your superpower to cause everyone to engage in civilized but vigorous debate. The debate itself is more valuable than anyone’s opinion.

To echo the opening thought of this meditation, wisdom will be silent unless every fool is allowed to speak.

We freethinkers want people to grant us permission to pursue truth on our own terms. Due process demands that we grant the same freedom to them, from the bottom of our hearts. We must have the courage to maintain that stance even when we are convinced they are heading in the wrong direction.

recently I wrote about my admiration for Pope Francis. Some are surprised that I, an increasingly progressive atheist, could extol the head of one of the most reactionary religions on Earth. It’s easy. Although I disagree with him on many important issues, I admire the fact that he uses his scepter to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion. To me, that is even more important than his specific opinions. And once I allow that someone can differ from me and still be a human worthy of respect, I discover that Pope Francis qua human is a pretty good one.

Do you have someone in your life whose opinions bug you? If so, maybe valuing the debate and the person more than his opinions will make you happier.